Hemment (2nd from left) at Russian Youth Meeting
Julie Hemment is truly an international citizen. Born and raised in England, as a teen Hemment went on a non-profit “Project Trust” mission to Kenya, where she taught English literature. (Hemment’s mother joined the Voluntary Service Overseas--or VSO, the English equivalent of the Peace Corps--when she retired, spending 2 years in Namibia, so perhaps it’s in the genes). Hemment eventually came to the U.S. for her doctoral studies at Cornell University. Currently, Hemment is an associate professor of anthropology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, specializing in post-Soviet Russia. Hemment, author of the critically well-received Empowering Women in Russia: Activism, Aid and NGOs
, has visited Russia for over 20 years, where she engages in forms of participatory research. Hemment was in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet government. I talked to her about that experience, and the connection between those early post-Soviet days and the recent political protests in Russia:
BV: What first attracted you to Russia?
JH: Well, it was kind of this weird serendipitous moment; in part from the experience of living overseas in Kenya (which was a great experience, but in retrospect was of course a bit imperialistic), in my youthful exuberance I got the travel bug. Around that time, I happened to make the acquaintance of Russians visiting the U.K. This was during Perestroika, and I came of age in the gloom of Thatcher’s Britain. So I struck up a friendship with a visiting Russian. I just got caught up in the stories of change, and the intoxicating sense of possibility Russia represented. And I was also drawn to the Russian style of narration and storytelling. And of course, there was the transgressive appeal of going to the other side of the “iron curtain.”
I was in Russia while huge world events were taking place: I was there when the Berlin Wall came down; I lived there when the Soviet government collapsed. So I found the world shifting under my feet. And I became aware of these cultural dynamics and expectations of what “freedom” represented; and, as part of that, what I represented there as a Westerner. There was this sense of idealism and possibility at that time. I became interested in what it was that people thought they were going to get from these profound changes. Around this time, “How-to” books flooded the Russian marketplace, mostly written by U.S. authors; you know, how to be your entrepreneurial self, etc. So I was very interested in the question of what was this thing that people thought they wanted and were going to become? The main thing that got me hooked was the kind of solutions that were being imported.
BV: What kinds of projects have you been involved with during your trips to Russia?
JH: The piece that fascinated me about the newly post-Soviet Russia was the arrival of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which brought with them the notion of citizen empowerment. The first project I got involved with was a new feminist-oriented women’s group in a small city. This organization was forging connections with Western feminism; and it was an unusual and rarified move at the time, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Only small numbers of people were really doing anything like this at the time; there was a kind of allergy to mass political organizations after the demise of the Communist party-run government. These were anomalous people who chose to come together and organize in this way. And women’s rights organizing was a project with a Bolshevik taint, so it was rejected by most people in the new Russia.
BV: What is the state of the Left or progressive politics in Russia these days?
JH: Well, in the immediate aftermath of the state’s collapse, any Left vocabulary became impossible. Social justice issues were seen as something from the past, and discredited utterly. The word “communist” had come to be used as a kind of epithet for people who were hopelessly stuck in the past. I was disconcerted at this time, along with some other Russians I knew, at what was almost an embrace of social inequality, as if this were the natural order. It remains very difficult to talk about the “Left” and “Right”: these things don’t map easily onto the Russian context. Now Putin of course rode the 1990s wave of the national rejection of neo-liberalism, presenting himself as a populist. So this was a kind of flip in the political landscape, but was not really a renaissance for the Left. The Communist party is still the most organized party in Russia, but it now works in concert with the Putin government as the so-called “loyal opposition.” Nowadays, there are more Left, radical organizations, but they’re very diffuse and marginal.
BV: It’s tempting to see the recent popular protests in Russia as part of a global continuum of activism, from the “Arab Spring,” through the Occupy movement, etc. Is it appropriate to consider Russian activism in this vein?
Occupy GR Banner
It's probably antithetical to the anti-acquisitive ethos of the Occupy movement to be notching your belt every time you visit an Occupy encampment, but alas, I am a bit of an Occupy tourist. (January seems to be the month of confession here at BloomVox). So when I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan last weekend, I tracked down Occupy Grand Rapids (or "GR" as many Michiganders call it), my 4th Occupy. I arrived in GR (for a first time visit) in the midst of a snowstorm, and the weekend was bitterly cold. So I didn't have high hopes for Occupy GR's survival. Their web presence is a bit minimal compared to other Occupy movements in larger cities, but they do have a wikispaces page, a Flickr group pool, and a Facebook page.
One of my nieces who lives in GR helped me find Occupy GR's encampment, which is nestled on a porch of the Fountain Street Church, tucked in behind Kendall College of Design. They had their banner proudly displayed, and behind it were chairs, a table, and a white board of events, which proclaimed that the occupation was in its 99th day. Occupy GR has been supported, and even embraced by the non-denominational Fountain Street Church, whose pastor has been open about his support
, and connected the goals of the movement to the goals of Christ himself.(Other religious institutions have also seen Christian resonances in Occupy's approach). The Mayor has also been supportive of Occupy GR, inviting them to a city meeting last fall. Undoubtedly, this institutional support has allowed Occupy GR to persist.
There is a tent on the Fountain Street porch, suggesting that Occupy is indeed occupying on a 24/7 basis. No one was present when I stopped by on a cold, wintry Sunday. But I was glad to see that the movement seems active. While I'm new to GR, it seems like a particularly ripe city for an Occupy movement. Obviously, any part of economically eviscerated Michigan provides rich fodder for resistance movements. But GR has extraordinary infrastructure--a 4 year old, stunning art museum (The GRAM)
, a large sports arena,
a new building for its 35 year old Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts
--surrounded by not insignificant poverty and racially segregated neighborhoods. In part, the infrastructure is owed to the presence of many corporate heavyweights such as Steelcase, Frederick Meijer's empire, and AmWay--and the founders and heirs of these institutions remain in the area, and contribute to its amazing cultural institutions. GR also has many colleges and funky small businesses, making it a very likeable town. But it is a town with clear haves and have-nots, which is evident as one drives through lower-end neighborhoods of this racially and class segregated city.
I had pretty much given up hope of seeing any actual occupiers, and was contenting myself with having found the encampment, when who should I see tromping across the street but an Occupy GR contingent! Of course I lept out of the car to go talk to them. They were a cheery band of fresh-faced young people who happily agreed to pose for a picture for BloomVox. When I asked where they were headed, banner aflutter, they said "sledding!" And indeed, it was prime sledding weather, with probably 6 inches of snow having fallen in the last few days. I was glad to see Occupy having a sense of humor and fun; Occupy sledding!--hell yeah. The Occupiers told me there were still some "residents" at the Occupy site at Fountain Street church, presumably camping in the tent. (Though one wonders how often in the sub-freezing temps GR can sink to).
Overall, I was struck by their enthusiasm and energy; the kind of down-to-earth ease and humor that I feel is a staple in my beloved, newly-adopted home-away-from-home Michigan. And I was aware of their youth, and grateful that young people are once again reinvigorating progressive politics. Bloom on, Occupy! Bloom on, GR!
The Mark of the Real
I bought my first (and probably last) Prada bag this week. So while I've had occasion here to bemoan increased consumerism in America, I'm clearly not entirely immune from the charge. That said, I have been striving of late to buy less stuff (you always seem to wear the same clothes over and over again anyway), but of better quality. At middle age, it's not unreasonable to think you'll have a bag for the rest of your life, so why not buy accordingly, if you can. This is so-called "investment dressing," AKA the way French women dress, etc. As part of that effort, I have allowed myself the occasional high-end purchase.
If I buy designer wear, it's typically radically marked down, but I have made a few purchases in the complete scenario: full price from some impossibly suave/cool salesperson in the belly of the beast: the designer boutique. As someone who cut her style teeth on shopping the Salvation Army for crisp, white, 1940s men's shirts and pointed leather shoes in the 1980s, then graduated to TJ Maxx expeditions for much of her adult life, I find high-end stores intimidating. I never feel made-up enough, feminine enough, or well-dressed enough to shop in these stores. And while I'm usually quite verbally agile, I feel like I just don't speak "boutique" well enough to communicate with the salespeople. Perhaps these are all just symptoms of not being in the right economic class to habitually frequent these stores. But it's become important for me to conquer that fear; not just to consume, but to dispel an insecurity borne of something as superficial as money.
Within Lies the Receipt...
For the last year, I have been looking for the perfect bag to fit my iPad and a few books, a pair of heels, etc. for those days when I need to shlep stuff down to work. I wanted something more interesting than a boring briefcase, (and the butch look I favored in my youth does NOT favor me anymore, now that the bloom is off the rose) so I needed something more purse-y. After looking for about a year, I saw a girl on the bus balancing on her knee the very bag I had been looking for, which led me to Prada. I of course first stalked it on the Internet, learning about its habits and habitats, before I ventured to the store.
But what I really want to talk about here is not the bag, but the receipt, apparently one of the key rituals of purchase in the high end world (at least, in my limited experience of it). In this age of "democratized" fashion, how do you know when you've purchased a true luxury good? There's the object itself, of course, but the transaction also signifies. When you pick up a deeply discounted handbag at Filene's Basement (R.I.P), the checkout girl will bearly look at you, will ask you to punch in your pin, and will toss your tiny receipt in your plastic bag (which screams "I Just Got a Bargain at Filene's Basement!). You'll stick that receipt in your wallet, in case you decide to return the bag. Ultimately, you'll throw it out.
At the Prada boutique in Saks, it goes a bit differently. You are asked for your credit card, which is placed on a kind of leatherette planchette, similar to the check cases used in restaurants for the bill (I'd expect it to be leather with Prada and all, but it looked kinda cheap). The impossibly cool salesperson (in my case, Juan) discretely rings up your purchase, as you fill out a discrete blue card with your information, seeing as how you are, you know, one of the Prada clan now. Then your credit card and slip are presented as a restaurant check is: secreted in a leather sleeve. You open, you sign, and return the sleeve to Juan. This is really a back and forth exchange now. Your receipt is then handed to you in, yes, a discrete little white envelope, along with Juan's card. What is this letter Prada has sent you? It is the letter of worth, at once secreted away and forgotten (good lord, just TRY to avoid buyer's remorse with these prices!), and proudly, elegantly memorialized in its crisp envelope. It is the tombstone of your lost money, sheer expense fetishized as value.
Over the holidays, I wanted to check on the status of a friend of mine who I hadn't heard from in awhile and was concerned about. She'd been dealing with a difficult pregnancy, so I didn't want to bother her directly. So of course I looked for her on Facebook to make sure she was OK. But I had to use my husband's login to access her, because I am not on Facebook. I don't even know whether to qualify that sentence with "yet." I did make a pact with some friends in October, erstwhile Facebook holdouts themselves, that I would get on it, but I haven't held up my end of the pact (they have). I'm betting most Facebookers in my demographic--middle-aged women who are reasonably comfortable
economically--are on it because their children are on it. Being childless, I don't have that incentive. My absence from Facebook is not going to make the news, like the recent NY Times article
about "Facebook Resisters," which of course focuses mostly on young people who don't use the service. But my avoidance is more than just middle-aged Luddite-ry. Yes, in part it's the exhibitionist/lack of privacy aspect of it that I find off-putting, but I haven't completely eschewed the techno surveillance implicit in iPhone ownership, debit card use, etc. (For great coverage of various legal aspects of privacy and advertising issues surrounding Facebook, check out lawyer, writer & blogger William Carleton's website
.)Some of my resistance to Facebook is an anti-social, anti-institutional stance, forged in my 20s and persistent (if a bit softened) to this day. I've always avoided joining (perhaps a bit too proudly). I've always found a way to keep one foot outside of any institution I've ever been affiliated with. I've had many occasions in my life to quote that well-trafficked Groucho Marx line: "I wouldn't want to join a club that would have me as a member"--but in fact, I don't want to join ANY club, even one that excludes me. And quite simply, I'm just not comfortable exposing even simulacra of my so-called personal life to public view. But
in life, as perhaps in virtual life, an isolationist stance can be self-defeating. One loses opportunities to forge communities; one may foster a self-perception of separateness that makes the world harder to inhabit. In some marketing analysis, I might be called a late adopter. But coming to certain technological or cultural phenomena late in my case is often due to an inherent mistrust and suspicion, not just of the technology, but of the early-adopting herd. Most of my life, I never liked what everyone raved about. And in the late 1970s-early '80s of my youth, it was perhaps easier to be marginal, easier to be defined by resisting certain kinds of consumption than it is today, when your grandma knows about smartphones and Louis Vuitton. (One of the chief joys of my childhood was in maintaining an inner life secret from my parents, so I can't imagine the relationship today's kids have to Facebook exposure). So I typically wait a long time, for example, before I check out that TV show everyone else is raving about (I think I finally saw my first "Seinfeld" episode when it was in reruns).
But sometimes, the herd is right (How could I have let myself miss out on "Breaking Bad" all these years? Thank you, streaming Netflix for clueing me in!) And when I see how Facebook has helped support global revolution, as, for example, in Tunisia and Egypt, I feel like taking part. But......I'm not there yet.
I know I'm not here either, but I'm not there yet.
Millennium Park, Chicago